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My Own Words: ‘Abstraction of Breathing’ in Myanmar

August 25, 2021

New media and multidisciplinary art

By Aung Myat Htay and Diana Zaw Win

On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s relatively stable democracy was brutally usurped by a military coup. The “Spring Revolution” hence commenced and what has been a slow, subconscious life during the pandemic of the past year—despite its challenges—is now cornered into a fight-or-flight mode. The whole nation seems restless with military and police violence occurring every hour. It feels like we are all testing how many minutes we can hold our breath everyday, like a durational performance. Art is a medium of communication but it is also a social action closely related to and a part of our daily lives. So what is art now under a crisis like this? What is its present purpose?

Mayco Naing, ‘Freedom from Fear’ series. Image courtesy of the artist.

In the past, art was the glory of the monarch, depicting his dignity and building a culture. Communist and Socialist regimes have used art as propaganda to guide the masses. And today, we have used art as a weapon of revolution against dictators. It seems different eras and people have used art to fit their own purposes. If art is an elephant, then the people are the blind prophets examining the different parts of the elephant and having different conclusions as to what the animal truly is. And the blind men’s different conclusions are not wrong in some ways. The man who examined the elephant’s nose might think it is a snake and the one who examined the ear might think it is a big fan. And the elephant as art might be a surreal elephant that transcends all human understanding.

I believe one’s culture should be an even interweaving of truth and fiction based on real desires. Myanmar’s contemporary art and social changes include a mixture full of sorrow, hope, helplessness, and compassion. However, if we look back at the history of Burmese art, we do not see much of these contrasting paradoxes. The Burmese decorative arts have hid the true suffering and deep desires very well under a façade of aesthetic perfection. Perhaps they represent the Burmese people’s forgiving nature and tendency to keep silent. Local art and culture policies foster such traditional decorative art while blocking out knowledge and exposure from abroad.

Catalogue of ‘Abstraction of Breathing’, 2020, a documentation project by SOCA.

Last year, I made a new documentary series, ‘Abstraction of Breathing: Exploring Media and Multi-disciplinary Art of Myanmar’ (2020) with support from the AURA Art foundation. It is the third volume of my documentation project on Myanmar Art, which started in 2013. This volume came about as an extension of my special online programme ‘What the Way We Live in Social-distancing’, organised as part of the School of Contemporary Art (SOCA) during the Covid lockdowns in 2020. Founded by a group of young artists in Yangon in 2015, SOCA is an alternative learning project for local art enthusiasts who are interested in the new art forms and current global art knowledge. The programme shares knowledge of media art around Southeast Asia and Asia. There, I encountered many young people interested in new media arts, and so I decided to make a documentation of Myanmar artists who deal with these media and experimental mediums.

I believe it is important for our culture today to foster non-traditional art forms that represent different aspects of our identity. For many reasons, it is rare to see the use of technology and new media in art creation processes in Myanmar. Most young people are not exposed to these technologies and exhibitions so they prefer to stick to old traditional mediums such as painting. Despite the fact that technology does make our lives easier, many viewers still have a hard time accepting photographs, videos and multimedia installations as art forms. And for now, due to Covid and the coup, there are no more galleries and art spaces to present such multi-disciplinary art forms, and I fear such chapters of Burmese contemporary art history will be overlooked.

“And for now, due to Covid and the coup, there are no more galleries and art spaces to present such multi-disciplinary art forms, and I fear such chapters of Burmese contemporary art history will be overlooked”

Ko So’s performance at the Zero Platform International Performance Art Festival 2019, Goethe Institute Yangon. Image courtesy of the artist.

There has also been criticism of Burmese activist art and those that challenge Burmese social norms and political issues as being too influenced by western ideas. To counter such criticism, I would like to share some examples of Burmese contemporary art that demonstrates its authenticity within our own roots. I have seen Mayco Naing’s photo art exhibition ‘Freedom from Fear’ (New Zero Art Space Yangon, December 2016) which has the same title as Aung San Suu Kyi’s well-known book. The series portrays young people in a bathtub filled with water. The subjects are holding their breaths underwater. The works go beyond simply aesthetic photographs. Rather, they are documentations of humans remarkably resisting something as natural as breathing. I think if breathing is an art, then not breathing would be anti-art, wouldn’t it? In the same way, Mayco Naing’s new work ‘Untitled’ featured in my project, she photographed inanimate scenes of buildings and rooms under silence of the pandemic lockdowns, capturing our collective longing to find freedom and escape this age of ghostly emptiness.

I think if breathing is an art, then not breathing would be anti-art, wouldn’t it?”

Khin Kyi Htet (Thuma Collective), ‘From Somagnosia’. Image courtesy of the artist.

Through the use of photo, video and new media, the artists in my documentation project explore social themes without pandering to cliché modes of political commentary. Thuma Collective’s simple photographs highlight social issues in a way that urges the viewer to think deeper. Ko So, an environmentalist-turned-artist from Shan State (Eastern Myanmar), transformed himself into an installation by placing plants on his head at Zero Platform International Performance Art Festival, Goethe Institute Yangon in 2019. Lwin Oo Maung wore theatrical animal heads on his head and presented a series of public performances in his work ‘Maung and Mei’, while Matter Collective is a leading experimental art project exploring the poetics of sound and visual symbiotics. I see so much potential in these new media artists. They will awaken a new wave of media art in Myanmar in the future. In addition to these new media artists, there is also the emergence of a young generation of art historians, critics, curators and writers with broader views and awareness of themes such as decolonisation and globalism. These multimedia artists and young scholars have created an influential community that shares new ideas while being critical of western-centric trends.

The uncertainty of the country’s future inherently affects the stability of the art and culture sectors. As I have stated in the curator’s note for ‘Abstraction of Breathing’: “Myanmar has emerged with its own interpretations to Western influences despite the limited freedom of expression. Difficult opportunities lead to stronger creativity.” And hence, the question is not about if we can survive this oppression. Because, we will simply live on and with us, the art will live on, grow and breathe (or hold its breath) with us as well. Despite the current political and social conflicts, I believe that Myanmar will continue to fight for new artistic challenges and broader aesthetic expressions. May we spread like wildflowers growing out of rough cliffs. As a popular verse of a revolutionary poem by “Khet Thi”, who sacrificed himself for the Spring Revolution goes: “They tried to bury us. But, they don’t know we are seeds.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of A&M

About the Authors

Aung Myat Htay is a Yangon-based artist and independent curator. He expresses social messages with a contemporary sensibility. He presented works in several regions of Asia, Europe and USA, and has published a documentation series on Myanmar Art. Aung has also lectured at National University of Art and Culture, Yangon.

Diana Zaw Win (pseudonym) studied Art History, Theory and Criticism in the United States. Upon returning to Myanmar, she found herself surviving under a brutal military coup.

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